Teenage Feminism Decades before “Girl Power”

*This post is part of our online forum on Student Activism.

Sixteen-year-old Dorinda Palmer leads marchers to City Hall but is blocked by white sheriff’s deputies and the local KKK. (Credit: Bob Fitch Photography Archives, Stanford University Libraries)

As civil disobedience in schools escalated in the postwar era, teenage girls began to assert their political identities more vociferously by joining movements for civil rights, free speech, and against the war in Vietnam. In becoming more active in civil disobedience by wearing armbands and striking from school, girls experienced unequal treatment from their young male counterparts, a realization that in turn fueled various methods of resistance.

As illuminated Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)–the Supreme Court decision regarding thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker’s right to wear a black armband on campus to mourn dead soldiers–Justice Abe Fortas argued that while political fashion would be allowed, “the length of skirts or type of clothing…hair style, or deportment” were not considered “pure speech.” Students could use fashion as a silent gesture of political protest, yet the personal—sex-specific dress codes—could not be interpreted as the political. When girls began pushing for gender equality in schools, adults often dismissed their demands as immature and inconsequential rather than indicative of a pattern of girlhood sexism. As Gael Graham argues in Young Activists (2006),

The fact that the war and racism literally killed—whereas gender discrimination appeared less urgent—contributed to women’s hesitation to raise their own grievances and men’s disinclination to heed them.”

Over the past two decades, historians have blurred the lines between women’s liberation and Black Power, revealing how welfare, abortion, and the environment became coalitional issues at the same time that women of color challenged sexism within organizations devoted to racial self-determination. Examining postwar teenage feminism reveals how girls felt inspired by and estranged from the white-dominated mainstream feminist movement. Girls shaped it to speak to their intersectional identities, while also creating their own spaces to address issues of sexism in the education system—revealing the emergence of teenage feminist solidarity and intersectional discourse on girlhood decades prior to the 1990’s wave of “girl power.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, fashion, sex education, and sex segregation were important sites for teenage feminist organizing that integrated discourses of access, self-determination, and survival. Fashion became a tool for girls to articulate their political identities. Teenage girls began to challenge skirt length requirements through collective forms of civil disobedience, including sit-ins at principals’ offices and school board meetings. At times, female students and teachers worked together to coordinate days in which all women wore pants to force the administration to change gendered dress code policies. As the fashion politics of the Black Panther Party expanded, African American girls used Afros and liberated threads to confront the intersections of institutionalized racism and sexism in the education system.

The People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) Choir. (Credit: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

Beginning in the late 1960s, teenage feminists began to critique dress codes as an extension of Cold War sexual containment. Without access to comprehensive sex education and contraceptives, teenage girls argued that pregnancy became a visual marker of a failure to perform respectable femininity. With girls’ bodies constantly surveilled through humiliating dress code checks, the visibility of the pregnant body worked to disenfranchise girls who could be indefinitely expelled when they began to show. Many were forced to withdraw from school, give birth in a maternity home, marry their partner, or give up their child to adoption in the years before Roe v. Wade. For some girls, the guilt of teenage pregnancy long outlasted giving birth. A seventeen-year-old mother wrote to Ms. about how she longed to be as “free and liberated” as young feminists, yet felt constrained by her early pregnancy: “I want to fight battles and make changes but some nights I lie in bed too frightened to move, too crushed by my own insecurity….it seems the bonds I chained myself with are unescapable.”

Other teenage mothers sued for the right to re-enter school after giving birth, as in the case of Mississippi’s Perry v. Grenada (1969). In addition to defending the rights of pregnant teenagers, high school feminists advocated for comprehensive sex education that was sex-positive, feminist, and lesbian-inclusive, such as New York’s Student Coalition for Relevant Sex Education (also called the High School Women’s Coalition), formed in 1971. This coalition sought to unify all ninety-two New York City high schools through a feminist sex education curriculum.

Girls fought some of the most intense battles over sex-segregated schools, courses, and sports. The most widely reported account of teenage feminist protest was thirteen-year-old Alice de Rivera who sued Stuyvesant High School for refusing to let girls apply. The school was one of the top three science and math high schools in New York City that maintained its prestige by not admitting girls, yet de Rivera’s case broke the gender barrier—allowing nine girls to attend in the fall of 1969. Cases like these brought forth by teenage girls helped form the legal basis for Title IX—a subset of the 1972 Education Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited sex discrimination. Girls’ writings reveal how guidance counselors and teachers still “tracked” them by steering them away from science and math courses, colleges, and male-dominated careers that counselors argued would cause unnecessary anxiety for girls. Catherine wrote to Rat readers about the unbearable weight her parents placed on her to abide by heteronormative gender roles: “Even our parents say you better take home EC or no one will marry you.” Ridiculed at home and school, angry teenage girls looked to one another and adult feminists for tools to combat their alienation.

Cover of “High School Women’s Liberation,” FPS: A Magazine of Youth People’s Liberation (Youth Liberation Press, 1976).

Girls sought feminist publications and consciousness-raising groups as they developed their own political identities, leaving an epistolary trail of their intersectional feminist formation within adult periodicals.1 Although feminist consciousness raising was derided by critics as largely white, middle-class, navel gazing, many girls were drawn to adult feminism in search of intellectual frameworks for understanding their alienation as institutionalized oppression. In her widely reprinted essay, “High School Women’s Oppression,” Jennie Bull positioned adult women’s consciousness-raising groups as a good model for feminist teenagers, and outlined a series of topics girls could discuss in their own groups. Letters to adult feminist publications like Ms. illuminate how they saw their oppression as unique to their teenage girl identity—not yet an adult, not yet a citizen, yet always a woman—intersections not being addressed by the adult feminist movement. Similar to the “inbetweenness” expressed by contemporary young female activists, teenage feminists during this era understood their double consciousness of being both a disenfranchised teenager and an oppressed woman. Yet girls who were Black, queer, and poor also challenged teenage feminists who constructed girlhood as a homogenous group identity by writing about their own intersectional lived experiences.

Many adult feminist organizations, including the National Organization for Women, the National Black Feminist Organization, the Mount Vernon/New Rochelle Group, the Women’s Caucus in People Against Racism, Bread and Roses, and numerous other organizations facilitated teenage feminist classes or consciousness-raising groups. Hysteria reported that when adult members in New York’s Astoria Collective approached students as sisters not social workers, they were surprised to find teenage girls hip to rejecting housewifery and calling authority figures “Pigs.” Some teenagers felt targeted by adults who came across as feminist proselytizers—bringing their feminist consciousness-raising issues to high schools rather than assisting girls in discussing their own. One teenager, signed “POWER to UNVOCABULARIED WOMEN,” wrote to Rat about the alienation she experienced at her first women’s liberation meeting when she failed to comprehend feminist theoretical jargon. She argued that college-educated adult feminists “unknowingly intimidate[d] and oppress[ed] other women…who have been tracked and maybe dropped out of high school.” Frustrated with ageism, girls rallied together to form their own youth feminist organizations and consciousness raising materials to address their own issues, such as the High School Women’s Liberation pamphlet of the Ann Arbor Youth Liberation group.

Comparing 1970s-era feminist periodicals to new feminist youth activists reveals how teenage girls continue to write their own narratives of resistance. The recent online campaign celebrating #blackgirlmagic reveals the creative potential of young intersectional feminist consciousness raising. Young girls of color who interrogate and celebrate their intersectional identities reveal how loving one’s blackness remains a radical act. At the same time, as young girls of color use social media to challenge their displacement within broader culture, their narratives continue to be co-opted in discourses of adult women’s empowerment.

  1. See microfilmed copies of underground feminist newspapers in the Herstory Microfilm Collection.
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Kera Lovell

Kera Lovell is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i where she teaches about American colonialism and resistance in Hawai‘i’s past and present. Lovell earned her PhD in American Studies at Purdue University. Her dissertation, “Radical Manifest Destiny: Mapping Power over Urban Green Space in the Age of Protest, 1968-1988,” traces an undocumented method of postwar urban protest in which activists challenged police brutality and urban renewal by converting vacant lots into parks. Follow her on Twitter @keralovell.

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